Kathryn Finney: Using Innovation to Empower Women of Color
Kathryn Finney has been an entrepreneur all her life. First, there was what she calls “a lucrative friendship bracelet business” that she started in elementary school. Later, she became one of the very first lifestyle bloggers when she started the Budget Fashionista blog and media company.
If the thirtysomething Finney were a different kind of person, her digital career might have ended after her participation in a tech incubator program that, she says, made her feel “invisible” for the first time in her life. “I was told by the head of that incubator program that he’d never met a black woman who’d ever received venture funding, and the likelihood of me ever receiving funding was zero, and so I should leave the program,” she told attendees at the 2016 Forbes Women’s Summit.
Finney did leave that incubator program — and a few years later, she started one of her own: digitalundivided (DID), a social enterprise that uses innovation to foster the growth and empowerment of black and Latina women entrepreneurs. In 2016, DID launched the BIG (as in “go big or go home”; it’s not an acronym) Innovation Center in Atlanta, a collaborative workspace that houses an incubator for tech-enabled start-ups. Last year, BIG won the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2015–2016 Growth Accelerator Fund Competition.
Changing the face of tech, Finney says, means creating ventures like BIG that provide concrete support — business development training, mentoring, networking, funding — to the 80 percent of all new women-led businesses that are started by women of color. In a recent interview with Access, Finney talked about changing the conversation, creating a new kind of incubator and making global connections.
On why the “diversity in tech” conversation is old news: As an organization, diversity in tech isn’t even what we’re talking about anymore. Everybody knows it’s an issue, and at this point, if diversity isn’t being addressed in an existing tech company, that is on purpose. I refuse to believe that the smartest people in the world — people who can build driverless cars and build rockets that land upright — can’t figure out how to get more black and Latino people in the door of their companies.
Instead, we are working to change the face of who can be successful. We focus on empowering women of color to use innovation and technology as their pathway to create their own businesses that will have a defined economic impact on their communities.
Every one of the founders in our current cohort has a real, scalable business. They’re using bleeding-edge technology like machine learning and other kinds of artificial intelligence. They have strong staffs. They’re really forward-thinking. And they are killing it.
On how authenticity helps to connect a diverse community: It’s really interesting to me that being intentional in who we serve seems to be very inviting to everyone else. Our networks naturally extend beyond color and race, so while we’re clear that most of our offerings are focused on empowering black and Latina women, we also say that we want everyone to come in and feel welcome.
And as a result, we’ve had a number of white-guy VCs [venture capitalists] come to our space and feel empowered and invigorated to make change. That has been one of the most satisfying byproducts of the work we’re doing. There’s something about coming into an environment where people are self-possessed and completely themselves that inspires others.
On being innovative in the incubator space: We’re black women who have built and sold tech companies. That in itself is really rare. Another example: We’re mothers who know that motherhood has an impact on the way we work, and that the challenges around parenting are different for us than for our male colleagues. We spend a lot of time every day thinking about our kids and whether they’re in good, safe places. So that’s why we provide our founders a stipend for child care — if we can help to alleviate the concerns that impact her ability to work, we give a founder the freedom to create a better company.
On connecting and learning globally: My friends give me scarves for my birthday, but on his first birthday in the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower’s friends gave him the gift of a fellowship in his name to promote international dialogue. I was recently named an Eisenhower Fellow, which gave me the opportunity to travel to Indonesia and Thailand to talk and learn about the innovation economy.
In Bangkok, I was on a panel about ways social enterprises can foster innovation. People from around the world were fascinated by some of the things the U.S. is doing, like the concept of the B Corporation [a for-profit entity whose goals include making a positive social impact], and the government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program that provides federal funding for small businesses innovating in R&D.
One of the most interesting moments, though, happened when I was talking with a group of men who run a really innovative tech incubator at a university in central Java. I looked at their materials, and the people represented in them were 50 percent women. “How did you guys do that?” I asked. And they looked at me like I was crazy. “Women are half the population,” they said.
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